PATTANI, Thailand (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont apologised to southern Muslims on Thursday for past hardline government policies blamed for stoking unrest in the rebellious region.
Speaking to 1,000 Muslim leaders, Surayud vowed to investigate the disappearance of Muslims since the separatist insurgency began in early 2004 and to root out corrupt and abusive officials in the three southernmost provinces.
“I’m here today to apologize for what past and present governments have done,” Surayud said in the southern town of Pattani, appealing for help to end violence in which more than 1,700 people have been killed.
“I come here today to reach out to everyone and say: ‘It’s my fault. I am sorry,’” Surayud said, admitting that as a former Amry chief he had failed to oppose the iron-fist policies of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Surayud’s apology earned applause from Muslim religious leaders in the region.
“His apology is a key to restoring peace in the future, which will take time, but it has already defused hostility and resentment in many Muslim minds,” Waedueramae Maminchi, head of the Islamic Council of Pattani, told Reuters.
In 2002, Thaksin dissolved a 21-year-old multi-agency body once credited with keeping stability there, saying the low-key separatist insurgencies of the 1970s and 1980s had come to an end and the violence was caused mainly by “petty thugs”.
After the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC) was disbanded, unrest brewed and exploded in January 2004 when militants launched arson attacks on schools across the region and raided an army camp.
Thaksin sent thousands of troops and police to the region, a former sultanate annexed by Bangkok a century ago, launching a hunt for suspects, many of whom were abducted and tortured, analysts said.
Surayud said those days were over.
“The legal apparatus, from police to prosecutors, has to be revamped. Cases of missing people, we don’t know how many people have gone missing in the entire country, have to be resolved quickly,” he told the meeting.
The Justice Ministry was considering dropping criminal charges against 58 Muslims involved in a 2004 protest which led to the deaths of 78 people in army custody, he said.
Surayud’s visit came a day after the government revived the SBPAC, which focused on rural development and probed complaints of graft and injustice, and appointed a Buddhist southerner to head the agency.
General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who led the September 19 coup that ousted Thaksin, said on Wednesday the SBPAC faced a tough job to restore peace in a region where there has been little let up in the daily shootings and bomb attacks since the coup.
Surayud called for a dialogue with the insurgents, although no group has taken public responsibility for the violence.
“We don’t want to have ceasefire talks because our situation hasn’t gone that far, but I would like to have a dialogue with them to seek mutual solutions,” said Surayud, a former special forces commander who fought in the Vietnam War.